The Beatles: Revolver Special Edition (Super Deluxe) review – experimental genius in real time

The Beatles’ career has been so exhaustively documented, chronicled and bootlegged, it can feel as if there aren’t many surprises left to uncover. But the footage in Peter Jackson’s recent documentary on the band, Get Back, certainly proved that assumption wrong … particularly the mind-blowing jam session where the band conjure the documentary’s title track out of thin air. Knowing the Beatles possessed unparalleled studio chemistry is one thing; seeing them nonchalantly chisel away at a musical idea and create greatness in real time is another thing entirely.

A bonus disc on the new expanded, remixed and remastered box set of 1966’s Revolver offers an even more transformative experience: a jaw-dropping sequence of Yellow Submarine work tapes traces the song’s evolution from a fragile, sad wisp sung by John Lennon to its later iteration as a Ringo Starr-directed psych-pop goof. That the band steered Yellow Submarine from morose folk trifle to boisterous stoner singalong seems improbable, but the tapes don’t lie: through a combination of focused acoustic woodshedding and whimsical studio risks, the band arrived at the more familiar, upbeat Yellow Submarine.

Iteration and fearless experimentation were always Beatles hallmarks, but Revolver found the band accelerating headfirst into innovation. Part of that was life experiences seeping into their art after a whirlwind few years: 1965’s Rubber Soul – the studio album directly before Revolver – contained forays into psychedelic pop as well as sharply observed (if straightforward) original songwriting. But, for the first time since their global breakthrough, the Beatles took a break in early 1966, canceling a proposed film and taking four months off before heading into the studio. Revolver’s music is the result of the band members having space to breathe and reset their creativity.

Recorded between early April and the end of June that year, Revolver is a patchwork of moods and styles: psychedelic jangle, orchestral pop, R&B-influenced rock and robust folk. Yet the LP also represented the start of their studio wizardry phase – the dizzying tape loops swirling through Tomorrow Never Knows remain as gloriously disorienting as ever – and embrace of non-rock instrumentation; Love You To features George Harrison playing sitar alongside guest tabla player Anil Bhagwat, while descending strings lend gravitas to Eleanor Rigby.

Much of Revolver’s music and lyrics reflect the band’s experiments with mind-expanding drugs – She Said She Said was inspired by a pre-fame Peter Fonda interrupting a Lennon acid trip. But it also includes some of the Beatles’ most clever metaphorical character sketches: the pill-dispensing alter ego Doctor Robert and McCartney’s Motown-jaunty mash note to marijuana, Got to Get You Into My Life. And the album’s mood never stays in one place for long; the mortality permeating the emotionally sophisticated Eleanor Rigby contrasts nicely with the innocence of Good Day Sunshine.

As he did on other recent Beatles reissues, George Martin’s son Giles handles production and remixing duties on Revolver. The younger Martin wisely doesn’t calibrate the records for 21st-century ears by adding modern polish and trickery. Instead, his approach involves amplifying the existing nuances of the music from a contemporary perspective, meaning even familiar songs sound fresher.

Revolver proved especially challenging to remix since the Beatles played live in the studio and tended to record all their performances on just one track. However, Martin worked with Peter Jackson’s audio team on “de-mixing” the original tapes, using cutting-edge technology to isolate the individual instrumental parts. This gave him an extra-blank canvas to create stereo mixes.

While Revolver doesn’t necessarily have the kaleidoscopic depths of the 2017 remix of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, that’s no slight. Instead, Revolver’s new details tease out deeper meanings in the songs. Now more prominent, the low-lit backing harmonies on Here, There and Everywhere remake the tune as an old-fashioned rock’n’roll love song; the piano bending out of key on I Want to Tell You mirrors the narrator’s insecurity; and McCartney’s booming walking bass on Taxman illuminates the biting, cynical tone of Harrison’s lyrics.

Related: Beatles’ Revolver reissue shows band in new light: ‘This is the record where we were each most ourselves’

The Revolver work tapes and demos are fascinating from an archival perspective. Although the band are certainly enjoying themselves – on one take of And Your Bird Can Sing, they charmingly collapse into giggles and can barely get through the song – many of the demos hint that Revolver could have been quite melancholy. A Lennon home demo of She Said She Said with a tweaked melody is stormier, while a more ascetic Here, There and Everywhere feels like the narrator is pining after someone unattainable. For era completists, various versions of the Revolver reissue also include sparkling updates of the 1966 standalone single Paperback Writer and its B-side, Rain; a session take on Rain played at actual speed makes a good argument that it’s one of the greatest Beatles songs.

In the foreword to a book included with the box set, Paul McCartney writes, “When asked what our formula was, John and I said that if we ever found one, we would get rid of it immediately.” That certainly explains the rapid sonic progression within the Beatles catalogue. But it also explains why Revolver still sounds so vibrant. With each studio album they recorded, the Beatles sought out new ways to express themselves and push their music forward. Revolver is the sound of them striving and laying the groundwork for even more ambitious music to come.

• Alexis Petridis is away